Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Human Rights Developments

Having suffered serious losses in the Nagorno Karabakh war, Azerbaijan's Popular Front (PFA) government, led by President Abulfaz Elchibey, was overthrown in June 1993 by a coalition of forces led by renegade Col. Surat Huseinov and Heidar Aliev. Aliev claimed that the change in government was legitimate and constitutional; he was elected President on October 3.

Neither regime distinguished itself with a good human rights record, choosing to harass its political opponents through arrests, censorship, police beatings, and other violations of basic civil rights.

Two people in 1992-1993 were charged with slander for insulting then-President Abulfaz Elchibey. In November 1992, prosecutors charged Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Araz Alizade with allegedly calling President Elchibey a fascist; the charges were later dropped. Toward the end of 1992, Miralim Bakhronov, a discontented member of the PFA, was reportedly charged with insulting the President and was imprisoned for organizing an unsanctioned demonstration. He was released from prison only after the Aliev government came to power.

Throughout the Popular Front period (June 1992 through June 1993), at least ten demonstrations were broken up by Azerbaijani police, who arrested and either imprisoned demonstrators or made them pay heavy fines. In late December 1992, demonstrators protesting language reform in Azerbaijan were reportedly beaten by police.

On March 27 the PFA government's Minister of Internal Affairs, Iskander Hamidov, attacked Zardusht Alizade, editor-in chief of Istiglal (Independence), at the office of the SDP. Alizade told Helsinki Watch that Hamidov, angered over several articles published about him in his paper, threw a heavy ashtray at the editor's head and punched another man in the face. Alizade was then thrown into the trunk of Hemidov's car and detained at Ministry of Interior Affairs, where he was beaten by law enforcement officials and held for several hours. Alizade reported that throughout the three months prior to this incident, he had received threatening phone calls-at times up to five or six per week-in response to politically controversial articles.

Due to this incident, and a March 27 incident in which Hamidov disrupted a live television debate between officials and the opposition National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (NDPA), Hamidov was chastised publicly by the President in April and dismissed in May.

The PFA government introduced a state of emergency on April 2 which, among other things, banned public demonstrations and sanctioned "military" censorship in view of the Karabakh war. Many believe, however, that it was aimed at suppressing political opposition in the face of the PFA government's weakness and waning popularity. Istiglal, the weekly newspaper of the Social-Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, was not published for more than two months, according to its editor, as a result of the censorship. The Russian-language Zerkalo reported that any article it attempted to publish on Heidar Aliev was routinely censored.

When Heidar Aliev came to power on June 24, he made a variety of public statements and pledges, including some to Helsinki Watch, that the new government would rule by democratic means only, based on human rights principles. Yet his government, instead of living up to these pledges, presided over waves of arrests, police beatings and censorship aimed at individuals and organizations in Azerbaijan's political opposition, mainly the PFA. From June through September 1993, police used violence to break up at least five reportedly peaceful demonstrations in support of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, punching and clubbing morethan one hundred peaceful demonstrators. Among the victims were at least eight journalists; their notebooks were snatched away and video cameras smashed; twelve journalists were arrested at two demonstrations and then released.

Each time Azerbaijan police broke up peaceful demonstrations, they detained large groups of opposition activists. One local human rights group estimated that at least 137 individuals were arrested for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations under Aliev's government in 1993. Some of the detained were released immediately, and others were kept in administrative detention. According to reliable reports, in some of the latter cases law enforcement officials refused to release political activists at the end of their brief terms of administrative detention while they criminal evidence against them. In other cases, individuals were released after several hours, only to be re-arrested the next day.

Opposition activists were detained for other non-violent political activity. On September 12 and 13, for example, Baku police arrested a group of Popular Front supporters for pasting up posters around the city announcing a demonstration to protest Azerbaijan's entry into the Commonwealth of Independent States. In mid-September, ten other Popular Front activists were arrested for printing and distributing leaflets, "agitation," "organizing provocations" and other activities that were either vaguely defined or qualified as civil and political rights. They were given fines and administrative penalties of up to fifteen or up to thirty days, but before the October elections, Aliev amnestied the ten.

High-ranking members of the PFA and Musavat a part belonging to the Popular Front also were arrested. In July, four Musavat party members were arrested while drinking tea at a Baky cafe. Ali Omarov, the general procurator of Azerbaijan, reportedly stated before the Milli Mejlis (parliament) that the men possessed texts that harshly criticized the Aliev government, and that this constituted a "state crime." All four were later released. On August 24, law enforcement officials arrested a group of political activists gathered in Tovuz at the coordinating council of the Popular Front, Musavat, and other political organizations.

Six high-ranking former government officials were arrested on July 16 in connection with events the previous month in the city of Gianja: in June the PFA government had attempted to put down a rebel army division (which eventually ousted President Elchibey). The six detained included the former chairman of the Milli Mejlis, the former deputy minister of security, the former deputy minister of justice, and the former deputy minister of interior, all of whom have been charged with using the army against the people and with misuse of public office. After much public outcry the former Chairman of the Milli Mejlis, Isa Gambar, was released on August 17, although charges against him were not dropped.

The Aliev government actively continued censorship, even after it suspended the state of emergency on September 20. Parts of Amnesty International's annual report on Azerbaijan, published in Istiglal, were cut by censors. The September 25 issue of Milliet, the National Independence Party newspaper, had contained a brief article on press censorship; the article was whited out by press censors. The wide-circulation daily Azadlyg's entire print run -- about 35,000 copies, according to some reports-was burned on September 11 because of a political cartoon depicting Aliev's visit to Moscow.

Because of the ongoing war in Nagorno Karabakh, Armenians remaining in Azerbaijan-mostly people in mixed marriages-faced the danger of being seized hostage, having their apartments confiscated and other forms of persecution. In February the Gray Wolves, a Turkish-oriented paramilitary group, repeatedly published lists of twenty-two Armenians who had changed their last names and national identity as indicated on Soviet-era passports, in order to escape persecution.

The Right to Monitor

On July 17 the Inter-party Commission on the Rule of Law and Human Rights, initiated by thePopular Front and representing a broad political spectrum, attempted to have its founding meeting. The gathering was disrupted by police troops, who reportedly broke into the Popular Front headquarters where the meeting was about to take place, shot into the air, ransacked the headquarters, and arrested a large group of people. Foreign human rights monitoring groups, including Helsinki Watch, were not harassed in Azerbaijan during 1993.

U.S. Policy

The Clinton administration firmly supported the Elchibey government, and publicly criticized the human rights policies that followed its overthrow. The U.S. Embassy in Baky issued a sharp protest after the arrest of Isa Gambar and other PFA government figures, and the U.S. ambassador was known to have raised human rights issues in his meetings with President Aliev.

This promotion of human right in situ was matched by statements from Washington. On August 30, for example, a State Department spokesperson unequivocally emphasized human rights in Azerbaijan, stating:

    We have consistently urged the Azerbaijani government to take steps to restore Azerbaijan to a democratic path. We continue to watch events in Azerbaijan closely and remind the Azerbaijani government that we expect it to demonstrate its express commitment to democracy through free elections, freedom of speech and the press . . . We urge the Azerbaijani government to protect the rights of all citizens, and we will continue to stress the importance of human rights issues in our relations with Azerbaijan.

At the same time, the Clinton administration sought to reverse the restrictions on aid to Azerbaijan set out by the Freedom Support Act of 1992 in order to be an "honest broker" in the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh [see section on Nagorno Karabakh]. Amb. Strobe Talbott noted at a September 7 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing: "We have found by experience, including in [Azerbaijan,] that [assistance] is not a very good instrument of punishment or pressure." Helsinki Watch took the position that human rights would best be served by providing no aid, other than humanitarian assistance, to any party to the conflict, including Armenia. Helsinki Watch considered it unwise to reestablish aid to Azerbaijan after human rights abuses had worsened so dramatically in such a short period of time.

During 1993 the Clinton administration delivered humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross. In June it distributed medical supplies through those organizations, and in September made grants of $1 million to each for relief.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

Early in the rule of Heidar Aliev, Helsinki Watch sought to have an immediate influence on human rights. To this end we sent a mission to Baky in June 1993, after the Popular Front government was overthrown, and met with Heidar Aliev. Mr. Aliev told Helsinki Watch that government in Azerbaijan "would be only by democratic means, . . . [whose] main principles are human rights, political pluralism, and full rights for all people" and that although during this transition period "Azerbaijan faces many problems, one can be sure that we will not change our ways." Helsinki Watch gave a small press conference following the meeting. A Helsinki Watch letter to Aliev issued several weeks later, and published in Azadlyg, protested press censorship and the violent breakup of a peaceful demonstration in support of the PFA. Helsinki Watch sent Aliev another letter on October 1, on the eve of Azerbaijan's elections, pointing out the gap between the Aliev government's human rights pledges and its pattern of human rights violations from June through September. The letter was published in full in Jumhurriat.

In April, before Aliev took power, Helsinki Watch sent a letter to President Elchibey protestingInterior Minister Hamidov's beating of Zardusht Alizade, editor-in-chief of an opposition newspaper, and requesting that the Azerbaijan government take disciplinary action against Mr. Hamidov.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page